Back in the day, I fell in [political] love with a guy named J. Peter Grace. Reagan had asked him to head up a commission to study waste and abuse in and by the federal government. The Commission produced a large report, entitled War on Waste. Grace shared the commission’s discoveries in another aptly titled book Burning Money: The Waste of Your Tax Dollars. Unlike the more recent 9/11 Commission Report, also published as a book, the Grace Commission Report contained serious information that many of us didn’t already know from reading the newspapers, and its actionable and specific recommendations could have made a real difference in the future security of this country.
Not that any specific action was taken, of course. Reagan presided over a fifty-year metastasization of the New Deal. But compared to the present day, government spending in the early 1980s was downright stingy. Thirty years of easy money, corporate capitalism and military adventurism doesn’t wear well on a country.
The so-called Reagan revolution is proof that wanting smaller government isn’t the same as getting it. By the end of his presidency, every bad thing — that is to say everything — about our federal government had increased radically. Sheldon Richman summarized the Reagan legacy in 1988, and it’s worth re-reading today.
Only a brave American, a suicidal Constitutionalist, or a sadistic Bolshevik would wish to honestly contemplate the frightening summary of government growth that will be written at the end of 2008. But perhaps the withering away of the state is still possible.
I was reminded of Peter Grace because in this age of recession and belt-tightening, it is only natural to start looking at waste in our government, and demanding the fat be returned to the "people." It is telling that a major selling point of the bailout, and its legionary spawn, is that we (the "people") could turn a profit, or at least, the bailout would "cost the taxpayer nothing."
But here’s a better idea, a new deal of sorts. Giveaways, special interest exceptions, and pleasing the masses — well, that’s how it works. It’s what politicians understand, so let’s expand the program! Throw some new interest groups a bone! For starters, let’s get the antiwar crowd to stop whining. Immediately end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — that’ll stop the fiscal bleeding and forestall a few trillion dollars, plus it will stop creating future liabilities of more terrorism aimed at Americans, more countries to "rebuild," and more sick and crippled soldiers to maintain for life.
The peace brigades are also unhappy with the American bases or ongoing deployments in 150 countries, and a half a trillion bucks every year just for maintenance of the Pentagon and its profligate and self-indulgent lifestyle. Some may ask, "Isn’t that the price of freedom?" Clearly, it buys damn little of the ethereal stuff. Burdened by a national debt that is rising as we breathe and amounts to $35,000 a person, and an entitlement crisis that adds a $100,000 more per taxpayer — does any American feel more free? Does any American, confused over whether to vote for the national or the international socialist on November 4th, feel that he or she has more choice?
Another interest group ignored for years by Congress and Presidents are the small "c" conservatives. As we approach national bankruptcy, these "Warriors Against Government Waste" are a rising tide, sure to demand their "take" from a Congress that soon will have little choice but to oblige them.
Other groups that deserve some policy goodies and legislative bones are the Ron Paul Revolutionaries who understand sound money, third-party constituencies focused on fundamental issues like liberty, the Constitution, and justice, and every generation in the country that is paying the social security and Medicare benefits for the generation that is receiving it. Obviously, there is some overlap among these groups, and contradictions in priorities. But taken together, it is a monster majority of special interests that will conspire together for a severely reduced and constrained federal government.
While our wasteful, desperate security policy around the globe is a well of near-instant potential savings, the low-hanging fruit today, as it was in the 1980s, is domestic spending. Every American schoolchild (even those who cannot name the Vice President) knows what an earmark is. They have all heard of the bridge to nowhere, and they know what it means. It’s time to abolish federal departments like Veterans Affairs and Education, and not stop until Homeland Security is completed gutted. When I say gutted, please don’t get the serrated blades out just yet — let’s simply split the assets (and the future budget requests) among the states. Most states have balanced budget amendments, and actual semi-accountable assemblies, congresses, and governors. Let them conduct the firesales.
Perhaps Obama or McCain will appoint another commission to look at potential government savings — as the federal government goes broke and broker, maybe this time angry Democrats and angrier Republicans in the House will decide to eat their young, sacrifice their unholy children (or dare I say wealthy grandparents?) at the altar of political survival.
We worry that it can’t happen here — but American fascism has already arrived, in fact, it has been living in the heartland, and our cities and suburbs for a long time. Others predict that as our government senses it is losing control, it will cling ever more vigorously to power and authority like a cat on a high branch, that our limited freedoms of today may be reduced even further if we demand too much, too soon.
Some believe that our government will launch another war to distract us, or to get the economy going. It does appear to be true that our federal government has an array of potential prison camps all over the country, in every state, waiting to be filled, with contracts for prison guards waiting only to be funded.
The naming and formation of Department of Homeland Security was no hysterical accident. America’s expensive domestic programs and adventuristic foreign policy follow a well-worn historical path. These developments — as with every action of our federal government — are designed to promote, maintain or salvage federal institutional capability to continue the plunder. It’s the same old deal, grown unreasonable, unaffordable, and unbearable.
In November 1934, folks in Indiana sent Charles Halleck to Congress to rein in FDR’s New Deal. In 1936, Halleck said, "The social experimentation and reckless extravagance of the New Deal are on the way out because the common sense of the people is reasserting itself." He went on to say, "We must be free of annoyance…of restrictions which cramp …our lives… . We must be allowed to work, to invest, and to save without making out a bureaucratic blank for every move we make."
Today, America is populated by people who demand instant messages, and refuse to waste a millisecond typing a single unnecessary vowel. As LRC contributor Becky Akers pointed out recently, bilingual 6-year olds in America choose to converse with their friends in English not because anyone tells them to, or because they want to be patriotic, but because "it’s faster."
Obama and McCain both salivate for neo-FDR status, and a New Deal of their own, conceived by fellow politicians, and tenderly nurtured like a hothouse flower. Instead, the next New Deal will be put to government as a trompement by fast-moving, waste-intolerant, outrageously irreverent people who not only treasure liberty, but expect it.
LRC columnist Karen Kwiatkowski, Ph.D. [send her mail], a retired USAF lieutenant colonel, has written on defense issues with a libertarian perspective for MilitaryWeek.com, hosted the call-in radio show American Forum, and blogs occasionally for Huffingtonpost.com and Liberty and Power. To receive automatic announcements of new articles, click here.